With its featureless 1950s architecture, BHUBANESWAR may initially strike you as surprisingly dull for a city with a population of around three-quarters of a million and a history of settlement stretching back more than two thousand years. However, the southern suburbs harbour the remnants of some of India’s finest medieval temples, which are made all the more atmospheric by the animated religious life that continues to revolve around them, particularly at festival times.
Bhubaneswar first appears in history during the fourth century BC, as the capital of ancient Kalinga. It was here that Ashoka erected one of the Subcontinent’s best-preserved rock edicts – still in place 5km south of Dhauli. Under the Chedis, ancient Kalinga gained control over the thriving mercantile trade in the region and became the northeast seaboard’s most formidable power.
Bhubaneswar then declined, re-emerging as a regional force only in the fifth century AD, when it became an important Shaivite centre. Coupled with the formidable wealth of the Sailodbhavas two centuries later, the growing religious fervour fuelled an extraordinary spate of temple construction. Between the seventh and twelfth centuries some seven thousand shrines are believed to have been erected around the Bindu Sagar tank. Most were razed in the Muslim incursions of the medieval era, but enough survived for it to be possible in even a short visit to trace the evolution of Odishan architecture from its small, modest beginnings to the gigantic, self-confident proportions of the Lingaraj – the seat of Trimbhubaneshwara, or “Lord of Three Worlds”, from which the modern city takes its name. A relative backwater until after Independence, Bhubaneswar was only declared the new state capital after nearby Cuttack reached bursting point in the 1950s.